Class brings African-American literature to life

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 30, 2003

NATCHEZ &045;&045; Frances Doss welcomed in her seventh period class Wednesday afternoon.

They sat down, and she instructed them to begin writing in their journals.

But while at first this sounds like any other class and any other teacher at Natchez High School, it is not. The class is African-American literature, an elective that lasts only half of the year. Doss is the original teacher of the class, which started in 1997.

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Wednesday afternoon, for the last class of the school day, an attentive and alert class of 18 students enjoyed laughter, discussion and learning. The class focused on African proverbs and folk tales.

&uot;I feel that each person here knows some kind of tale,&uot; Doss said. &uot;With folk tales, it tells something about the people&uot; as well as the culture.

One student read the proverb, &uot;Every time an old man dies, it is as if a library has burned down.&uot; This proverb echoes one of the major themes of Doss’ philosophy for the class. She requires her students to talk to someone &045;&045; a parent, grandparent, relative, family friend or church member, for example &045;&045; to gather their own folk tales.

&uot;Our culture is based on an oral tradition,&uot; Doss said.

If the students do not have a family member to use as their &uot;resource,&uot; Doss will find them one.

&uot;What I’ve found, there really are students that do not communicate with their elders,&uot; Doss said. This exercise is to open those communication lines as well as to learn.

Doss said so many things about black history and culture cannot be found in history books or in American history classes. The folk tales, the proverbs and the stories, passed down many times, tell of the times, the surroundings of the people, the history and the culture.

&uot;I thought I was lacking knowledge of my heritage,&uot; Natchez High junior Claude Johnson said of his reason for taking the class. &uot;I’m learning a lot of stuff I didn’t know.&uot;

Johnson said he is learning there is more to the history of black Americans than slavery but also is learning more about the elements of the era of slavery, like how strong people had to be to overcome it. &uot;It gives me more of a drive … the more I learn,&uot; he said.

They learn the stories of people like Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a black man who helped explore and settle the Mississippi River Valley in the 17th and 18th centuries. He established a trading post on the southern shore of Lake Michigan that eventually became the city of Chicago.

But it is not just the subject area that holds the class’ attention. &uot;It’s the way she teaches it,&uot; Johnson said. &uot;She makes it fun to learn.&uot;

Doss, a 23-year veteran of Natchez High and lifelong Natchezian, has long studied African culture and history and, as a senior English teacher, literature as well. &uot;We study the past to understand the present and move positively into the future,&uot; Doss said.

She also is an online educational consultant for two Web sites on slavery in America and the history of Jim Crow. Teachers place research essays on the sites and make lesson plans to use in their classrooms.

Doss, along with others throughout the country, evaluate the plans and make recommendations on presenting the information to the students.

On a third Web site, that of the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, she proofreads research papers, acting as consultant on curriculum material.

She also is a certified tour guide for the City of Natchez for black heritage tours.

Now, Doss said she is also working on writing lesson plans for the slavery in America Web site.

All this accumulation of knowledge and experience pours back into her classroom teaching. In a class Johnson describes as &uot;very different&uot; and &uot;real open,&uot; the students are learning many things in an elective class that is structured more a like a core class.

And the class seems leave a lasting impression on students. In fact, one of her former African-American literature students is now taking her class at Co-Lin. So, it seems, the combination of fun, discussion and learning &045;&045; and a teacher who is excited and knowledgeable about her subject area leaves students like Johnson saying, &uot;I’m glad I did take this class.&uot;